If the Bones of Weston Could Talk
The black and white photograph of centuries old skeletal remains unearthed in 1911 Toronto is haunting. So what became of the Bones of Weston?
The black and white photograph is powerful, haunting and bizarre.
It’s impossible to look past the disturbing image of skeletal remains scattered haphazardly on the ground, in the ditch and heaped in a small crate. The casual indifference of the living subjects ─ nine youngsters and three adult males ─ is downright jarring.
The weathered clapboard outbuildings in the background in the distance and the attire of those posing for the photographer ─ boys in breeches, men in derby hats ─ the image appears to capture a scene from the Wild West.
But this is not the frontier. This is 1911 Toronto, Weston, to be precise. The photograph titled “Men’s bones found at Weston on April 28th 1911,” turns up in an image search on the Toronto Public Library website and Wikimedia Commons.
What’s the story behind this evocative photograph? More importantly, what became of the disinterred remains, and has their memory been honoured?
Answers proved hard to come by and disappointing.
Weston Presbyterian Church on Cross Street in the Village of Weston had welcomed worshippers since 1865. By the first decade of the last century, Sunday school attendance at the church was bursting at the seams. Additional space required a larger building. Funds were raised, and an acre lot purchased a short distance away on the corner of Main (now Weston Road) and Mill Street (now Bellevue Crescent).
The original plan called for the sanctuary to remain on Cross Street while Sunday school classes would be held across town at the new location known as the Westminster Sunday school building.
Unbeknownst to anyone, the site they chose to build on was sacred ground.
Excavation on the build began in earnest in spring 1911. Soon after, skeletal remains were unearthed. Hector Hart, the local contractor hired for the undertaking, was at the controls of the excavator digging a drainage ditch when he noticed bones mixed with soil in the basket.
Hart had disturbed a Huron-Wendat ossuary dating from the Late Iroquoian era. At peace for roughly half a millennium, bodies of thirty individuals buried sixty centimetres were exposed. No ornamentation, relics, weapons or articles of any kind were present.
If not for Weston resident Gerhard Knothe, the discovery might have become even less of a footnote in Toronto history than it did.
The site of the construction was practically in Knothe’s backyard. According to city directories, Knothe tenanted on property adjacent to the lot where Hart was excavating. Knothe, a Russian emigrant, was a photographer by profession and likely attended Weston Presbyterian Church.
Knothe placed camera on tripod and got to work.
The infamous photographs — a second image shows skulls and femurs arranged at the edge of the ditch — along with eight other cue card-size, silver gelatin prints were later assembled into a commemorative cloth-bound booklet in 1912 marking the opening of the Westminster Sunday school building.
From unearthing the remains, through to the laying of the foundation, the installation of a cornerstone with time capsule, to a procession to the new Sunday school building and finally the congregation assembled at the front of the house of worship, each photograph taken over a year’s time, marks a milestone in the construction process.
Few individuals in the photos are identified. The nameless cluster of children reappears, as does the distinguished gentleman wearing the high, white Edwardian collar and gripping sheaves of paper. Likely this is Rev. A.H. MacGillivray, pastor of the church and convenor of the Sunday school construction committee. As for the apprehensive boy with pursed lips standing in the ditch with a shovel, based on photographic comparisons, this is possibly one of MacGillivray’s two sons.
The discovery caused a stir in the village. Citizens turned out in droves. Reporters from the Daily Star and the Globe were dispatched to report on the event. Speculation varied on the bones’ origins. One citizen volunteered to a reporter the find “probably indicate the results of an Indian battle fought many years ago.” Another speculated, “the skeletons were not those of Indians, but the bones of gallant Canadians who fought in the rebellion of 1837 or the war of 1812.”
Even before all the remains were exhumed, questions about what should be done with them were raised. The Daily Star reported, “No decision has yet been reached as to the deposition of the relics, but it is possible that they will be donated to various museums.”
In the coming days, locals helped themselves to specimens.
The Globe wrote, “Curio seekers in town have carried off some of the more complete skulls.” Weston resident Christina Munshaw “rescued … two splendid skulls … from the depredations of innocent pillagers.” The same article claimed barrister Alfred T. Hunter of the firm Hunter & Hunter was the legal owner of the find because the remains were supposedly found on property he owned abutting the construction site.
Three days lapsed before Dr. Rowland Orr, newly appointed Superintendent of the Ontario Provincial Museum, arrived in Weston. By then, contents of the unmarked grave had been picked over, handled, moved and rearranged.
Upon his visit, Dr. Orr helped himself to a pair of skulls for study and preservation at the Ontario Provincial Museum.
After this, the story becomes lost to history.
So what became of the bones?
The surest way to track the samples Dr. Orr made off with would be through contact with the Royal Ontario Museum, successor to the Ontario Provincial Museum. When contacted, ROM officials indicated nothing from the 1911 Weston find was catalogued at either the Ontario Provincial Museum or at the ROM.
Previous to being appointed curator of the Provincial Museum, Dr. Orr served as the York County coroner, editor of the Ontario Medical Journal, and the Ontario Historical Society president. It is worth observing, the Globe article announcing his appointment as curator only eight weeks before events at Weston, notes, “Dr. Orr is … particularly interested in Indian lore, having a private collection of Indian relics of considerable value.”
ROM officials suggested reaching out to the anthropology department at the University of Toronto and the archeology division of the Ministry for Culture, Tourism and Sport, both of which prove to be non-starters.
Current staff at Weston Presbyterian Church on Cross Street offered little except to provide a history of their congregation and recommended contacting the archives at the Presbyterian Church of Canada. Staff at the archives have no knowledge of the remains.
The history of Weston Presbyterian Church is convoluted. Not long after the Sunday school opened in 1912, the congregation splintered. The breakaway flock began hosting services in the recently constructed building, eventually becoming known as Westminster United Church.
The Sunday school building where Westminster United Church held services for forty-four years was demolished in 1956 and the time capsule was removed. A new place of worship was built on William Street in Weston. Then in 2013 this congregation dissolved. The William Street property was sold but not before the time capsule was preserved.
Contacting descendants of Hector Hart and Christina Munshaw turned up little.
David Munshaw, a distant cousin of Christina Munshaw, is aware of the family’s role in the discovery of Indigenous remains in Weston, but details are sketchy. After viewing the Knothe photograph, however, he identified Christina Munshaw’s husband, Frank Munshaw, and suspects some of the children present may be part of the Munshaw brood.
As for skulls removed over a century ago by a distant cousin, David Munshaw does not know their current whereabouts.
The same goes for descendants of Dr. Orr and photographer Gerhard Knothe.
Gloria Campbell, the spouse of Alfred T. Hunter’s nephew, suggested contacting the Huronia Museum. Campbell said Hunter’s wife was from the Midland area where the museum is located. It’s a long shot, but if Hunter came to possess something from the 1911 site, perhaps it eventually found its way into the museum’s collection.
The Huronia Museum did not respond to an email inquiry.
There is nothing presently commemorating the former site of the Huron-Wendat ossuary at 5 Bellevue Cres. A proper, thorough archeological study of the area has never been carried out. After 1956 the parcel of land served as a parking lot until the early 1970s when the present highrise apartment tower was constructed.
Author Glenn Turner is familiar with the area’s history. Turner’s 2015 book, “The Toronto Carrying Place: Rediscovering Toronto’s Most Ancient Trail,” is an account of the author’s epic walk following the First Nations’ path from the mouth of the Humber River to its headwater on the Holland River.
The Carrying Place passed near the unmarked grave.
In a section titled “Weston’s Angry Ghosts,” Turner explained a ceremonial practice known as The Feast of the Dead. Performed by the Wendat every twelve years to strike a balance between living persons and malevolent spirits, the ceremony involved exhuming the remains of the deceased. “The bodies would be stripped, cleaned, wrapped in new robes and transported to the site,” Turner writes, “Where a new mass burial was to be made.” During the process, family members would honour their dead with gifts and feasts.
Turner speculates, “The ossuary on Weston Road may have been a local village cemetery or a communal Feast of the Dead pit.”
While researching his book, did Turner discover the whereabouts of any of the stolen remains? His response is to the point, “I have no clue where the remains might have gone,” but offers the name of someone who might.
A conversation with archeologist Dr. Mima Kapches, formerly a senior curator at the Royal Ontario Museum for over twenty-five years, proves enlightening. Now retired, she specialized in the study of Iroquoian peoples of Ontario. Her memory is foggy on specifics but Dr. Kapches recalls a visitor showing up at her ROM office decades ago from Westminster United Church with what she recalls, “Contents of the cornerstone of the Sunday School building. There was a (portion of a) cranium, I assume from (the) ossuary in the cornerstone box.”
President of the Weston Historical Society, Cherri Hurst, attended Westminster United Church until its closure. A former adviser on the church’s archival committee, Hurst confirms Dr. Kapches’ memory.
From thirty skeletal remains, only a bone fragment the size of a large scallop shell can be accounted for.
The frontal bone of a cranium with brow ridges intact had been wrapped in newspaper and stowed in a copper box explicitly crafted for this purpose. During the 1911 ceremony photographed by Gerhard Knothe, the container the size of a child’s shoebox was placed in the cornerstone of Westminster Sunday school building. The time capsule contained no other content.
Attendance at Westminster United Church declined so much so that by mid-2000s its demise appeared imminent. Steps were taken to ensure the remains would be adequately attended to before the church was sold off. Hurst explained, “It was agreed that the fragment of bone was important and sensitive and the best plan was to try to ensure a proper reburial in the Huron-Wendat tradition.”
The Weston Historical Society met with archeologist Dr. Ron Williamson, founder and senior associate of Archaeological Services Inc. Hurst said, “He was shown the contents of the copper box and told what we hoped would happen.” Dr. Williamson informed Hurst and other members of the historical society, a reburial of Huron-Wendat remains was being planned, “If we were willing, he would take ownership and see that the (cranial fragment) would be included.”
That was 2011.
Today, Dr. Williamson acknowledges he took possession of the fragment. “The plan had been to rebury them with other remains in 2013, but that did not happen at the Huron’s decision, and they are scheduled to be repatriated at the next earliest opportunity with many other fragmentary remains.”
A decade later Cherri Hurst is astonished this is the case. “My understanding was they were going to be reinterred right away.”
Mélanie Vincent is project manager and consultant to the Huron-Wendat Nation Council, responsible for the eventual private reburial ceremony. She said, “Development issues delayed reburying the remains of our ancestors … then came the pandemic.”
Asked respectfully if the remains could be reinterred at Weston, Vincent is cautious. “This is a very sensitive issue for our community and families, and it is our responsibility as a nation to take care of our ancestors. The preferred option is always to rebury our ancestors where they were buried. Many times, this is impossible because development occurred.”
As it stands, Huron-Wendat Nation Council has yet to determine a reburial site.
In the meantime, the site at 5 Bellevue Cres. is under consideration for installation of a plaque by the City of Toronto.
Councillor Frances Nunziata (Ward 5) represents the area. Until she had seen the disturbing image catalogued on the Toronto Public Library website, the councillor was unaware an Indigenous ossuary had been disturbed in 1911. Councillor Nunziata wasted little time contacting the city’s Indigenous Affairs Office. In consultation with Indigenous partners in the community, Councillor Nunziata committed to start the process of assigning a commemorative plaque for the site.
Over a century later, a process is in motion granting the bones of Weston reverence long ago denied.
This article originally appeared in the Toronto Star, June 19, 2021